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Employers should not ignore potential of a four-day week

15 January 2024

The prospect of extensive adoption of a four-day working week where substantial percentages of businesses’ employees work remotely, is no longer an esoteric matter. It’s something that employers can no longer afford to put on the back burner of their considerations.

 If you’re a business owner, it’s an issue requiring prompt attention because research shows restructuring a business so employees work, often remotely, fewer than 40 hours over four days can pay dividends. This can, among other things, maintain and even increase productivity while attracting top talent.

 Already 33% of US workers able to do their jobs remotely do so all the time. LinkedIn data shows one in nine US job postings offer remote work, 13% of which are office/remote hybrids. Currently 66% of job applications are for hybrids, and chief executives report that putting “remote” or “hybrid” into a job description triples the number of applications for it.

 And we’re starting to hear of reports from organisations in Australia, the US and elsewhere running pilot four-days-a-week programs that they are improving productivity and employees’ wellbeing.

 Data from Global job search platform Indeed (represented in Australia) shows that although for years only 0.3% of its total job posts offered a four-day working week, that number has tripled in recent years.

 Traditionally a four-day working week of 40 hours has been most commonly available in medical, dental, and veterinary practices, also in manufacturing and various production companies.

 Evolution of the working week

 However, organisations that during the past decade or so have experimented with a four-day working week, haven’t been favourably impressed by results. What they found was that in trying to condense work previously accomplished in a five-day working week of 38 to 40 hours into four days of longer working hours, wasn’t efficient.

 Employees’ productivity lessened as fatigue slowed them down towards the end of longer working days.  In trying to condense more work into a day, they spent less time attending to customers’ needs -- which was not good for business. Constructive meetings with co-workers also became difficult.

 Unsurprisingly in these circumstances supervisors reported that work quality and output in parts of a business under their control, were adversely affected by a four-day working week.

 But that was a time when employers failed to understand critical factors for success with such a system, now understood by smart business owners – for example, that there’s a non-linear relationship between hours worked in a day and productivity, the rate of which diminishes each hour worked beyond a certain point, often determined by the nature of the work.

 Longer working hours can also result in increases in all sorts of errors -- some of which result in injuries – while concurrently there are decreases in employees’ wellbeing, levels of engagement, and job satisfaction.

 Which begs the question

But where is there a rule requiring 38 to 40 hours of work to be done in four days of a week?  Anyway, there’s mounting evidence indicating reduced hour-work schedules for unchanged pay levels are feasible in terms of meeting required productivity, while also presenting potential advantages across other metrics.

 In the past decade, data from growing numbers of reduced working week trials in Sweden, Ireland, North America, the UK, and Australasia, shows that dealing with the practicalities of conscious redesign of how work is done, is worth the effort.   Consistently restructuring and redesigning costs are seen to be more than justified by better business outcomes and employee wellbeing that retains staff.

 But this only happens when initiatives in the redesigning don’t include lengthening working days. Operations need to be streamlined, administrative burdens reduced, and work that has a high bottom line impact, prioritised.

 Recent studies in Australia show in redesigning for four-day week, businesses should adopt frameworks such as OKRs (objectives and key results) that define company and team-level goals to ensure everyone’s work is directed towards those goals by:

  •          Running meeting audits to ensure they don’t impinge on productive time.
  •          Allowing employees to work to the full extent of their education and training, ensuring they’re not inappropriately bogged down in administrative/menial tasks when priority tasks need focus and attention.
  •          Stopping, automating, or outsourcing all non-priority tasks.
  •          Embracing, as essential policy for a four-day week, asynchronous communication (communication that doesn’t happen in real-time – on the phone, in-person, or during a live video conferencing meeting.)
  •          Understanding by everyone of what may need to be escalated and who will handle it.

 Making a four-day working week work  

 Experimenting with a four-day working week will bring an organisation’s problems with communications, trust, operational inefficiencies, and impediments to productivity, into the light, so that while this provides good opportunities for improvement, there’ll be some ego bruising and disruptions.

 The significant upside in today’s increasingly competitive labour market is that finely tuned businesses offering a four-day working week are seen to be attracting and retaining top line talent while providing a significant advantage to recruitment teams.

 It’s important that there’s willing buy-in by leadership and rank-and-file employees to experimentation that has clear expectations, and that clients and external stakeholders are made aware of what’s going on and why.

 A four-day system won’t work unless all employees understand they’re being asked to consistently produce in four days what, in the past, they produced in five – and that there may still be occasions when a business’s workload is particularly heavy, that they’ll be required to work five days in a week.

 It’s been found unwise in Australia for organisations to commit to a four-day working week without at least three months of proving they can successfully reduce working time while maintaining output.

 Research shows for pilot programs to succeed there must be advanced documentation and training in redesigning work tasks and productivity coaching, and Macks Advisory is aware of Australian specialist companies that can help business owners with this.

 Indeed, we know of a business thus helped, that’s reported introducing a four-day working week where there’s been a 26% increase in productivity, a 21% increase in “energy levels”, and an 18% decrease in “employee stress”.

 Joe O’Connor, director and co-founder of Australia’s Work Time Reduction Centre of Excellence says successfully setting up a business for a four-day working week “isn’t cheap or easy, it’s hard work”

 But the evidence is it’s worth it – and clearly, an opportunity for businesses to focus on what matters.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this webpage is general information and does not constitute legal advice. Nothing in this webpage is or purports to be advice. If you do need advice, then you ought to seek and obtain appropriate personal professional advice based on your personal circumstance.

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